Simply put, that was impressive.
Not just Gonzaga’s defensive-powered 74-54 win over BYU to win the West Coast Conference Tournament – and the league’s NCAA automatic berth – for the sixth consecutive season, but the way the Zags impressed ESPN’s godfather, Dick Vitale.
“This is a legitimate contender for a Final Four,” Vitale said in the middle of Gonzaga’s game-clinching second-half run Tuesday night. “They can beat anyone on a given night.”
To be clear, this was one of those given nights.
What they saw …
Vitale, veteran play-by-play voice Bob Wischusen and reporter Gene Wojciechowski saw the Zags (30-4) at their best – the entire game on the defensive end and for just enough spurts on the offensive side to punch their NCAA ticket again.
But for most of the first half, it was a battle as BYU (24-10) clawed for the WCC’s automatic berth, the only way the Cougars were going to make the NCAA Tournament.
They were lacking firepower, however, as Yoeli Childs (20 points) and Elijah Bryant (11) were singing a duet. The sixth-ranked Zags, on the other hand, were an ensemble, with four players in double figures despite suffering through an off shooting night.
The Sinatra of the group, as it’s been in all three Las Vegas games, was sophomore Killian Tillie, whose MVP performance included 22 points (on a poor – for him – 9-of-13 shooting night, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc) and six rebounds.
And a nearly continuous shout-out from Vitale.
“I didn’t know they made shooters like that in France,” Vitale said at one point.
“That’s amazing,” the analyst raved after another Tillie 3-pointer. “Every time he shoots the ball, I think it’s a layup.”
Tillie did miss one 3-pointer, but we’ll blame it on Joe Lunardi.
ESPN again broke into the early action to assess NCAA chances for BYU (none without a win), Saint Mary’s (surprisingly iffy after Monday’s loss) and Gonzaga (a five seed for Lunardi, the bracket maven, but a three in Vitale’s eyes).
It was while Lunardi’s visage filled up the right third of the screen that Tillie missed from long range, snapping a streak of 12 consecutive makes.
That streak is almost as impressive as Gonzaga’s NCAA streak under Mark Few, someone Vitale praised throughout the broadcast.
And in a morning phone call with the local sports television critic.
What we saw …
I saw a couple of phone numbers Tuesday morning from unknown callers. They left voicemails, mentioning that Vitale wanted to talk. They passed along his cell number.
To let you behind the curtain, it’s not unusual for subjects of columns and stories to have thoughts about how they were presented in the newspaper. But being busy, and also hesitant to talk with someone who would be the subject of another column, I let it pass.
Then Vitale called. And I answered.
He had some things to say. One word I used bothered him. He was right. It was a bad choice. He doesn’t have a shtick, he has his personality. It’s who he is and who he’s been in a broadcast career that stretches back to the beginnings of ESPN.
He also felt awful he had made a mistake about Rui Hachimura, one I had pointed out and one he corrected Tuesday night.
A national audience is different, he explained, and the broadcast has to introduce Gonzaga to people who may be watching the Zags for the first time.
He was engaging, insightful, passionate. Just like he can be during games when the volume is muted a bit. It seemed more that way in the finals.
The game was good, at least for a while, and Vitale described like only he can.
“This is like a home game for Gonzaga,” he said at the end of the first half. “I think we’re at the Kennel. It’s unbelievable, Bob Wischusen, the enthusiasm, the energy, look at the passion of these (Gonzaga) fans.”
Vitale felt the same way about Tillie, giving him an A-plus for his Las Vegas performance.
And, yes, he and Wischusen did mention Tillie’s volleyball connections, though it came with just a couple of minutes left and included a mention of this column. A few minutes before Vitale had tagged us in a tweet about Gonzaga and Michigan.
They both seemed out of place, sort of like Bill Murray at the College of Charleston game earlier in the evening without a Cubs hat on.
Or that phone call we received earlier in the day.
As the conversation ended, Vitale wanted to make sure I knew, now that I have his number, he was always available to talk.
So I have that going for me, which is nice.